With vessel traffic in the Bering Strait increasing exponentially, development across the Arctic improving, and the future of oil and gas exploration, fisheries, trade and tourism opportunities abounding, political leaders and scientists gathered this week in Norway for one of the more significant annual meetings on Arctic issues.
Alaska's Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell traveled to the Norway conference, delivering a strong message: Alaska needs a way to manage and communicate with itinerant vessels traveling through the Bering Straits.
"This is the age of Arctic Shipping the great explorers dreamed of," Treadwell said in a speech in Norway on Monday. "We've been given a 'new ocean' of possibilities — and dangers — and we need to do everything we can to prepare for both."
While vessels traveling from a U.S. port must comply with a wide variety of rules aimed at keeping the waters safe, those traveling through do not. As often as not, the U.S. has little information about vessels moving through waters, and many of them are carrying hydrocarbons — crude oil, gas condensate, jet fuel and LNG. The state needs an agreement in place yesterday. Citing the lessons learned from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Treadwell said interaction and communication are essential to good marine shipping safety.
"If there's one lesson from that time we don't see applied in the Arctic to itinerant vessels today, it's there is virtually no interaction ahead of time between parties to a potential accident and coastal residents," Treadwell said in a speech Monday.
Treadwell said in an interview last week on his way to Norway that many challenges must be overcome to create an agreement on Arctic shipping policy. Do all the nations of the world have to sign off on a policy, or can an agreement be drawn up between Arctic nations and those wishing to ship in the Arctic. And what safeguards will those nations agree to? What collaborative efforts can be encouraged or even made law, such as spill response cooperation measures?
"Domestically, the United States regulates and monitors both tank and non-tank vessels to the hilt," Treadwell said. "So do other Arctic states. But we have little say today about the environmental or human safety plans for the traffic that's sailing through Alaska's front yard in the Bering Strait."
One safety measure that is now being used in many areas in Alaska waters are locater beacons, which provide positioning data as well as information about the vessel, its contents and its spill response capabilities. Treadwell said getting beacons on vessels traveling through Alaska waters is a good idea, but transmitter-receiving stations must also be in place so that data can be collected. Currently, transmitter coverage in the state is limited, Treadwell said. Eventually, the beacon location may be done by satellite, he noted.
While the benefits of filing travel plans and ship information may be obvious, collaboration and improved communication with regards to Arctic shipping could go even further, Treadwell noted. If Arctic nations were able to work together, cost-saving measures and opportunities to collaboratively use resources such as icebreakers and tugs would improve the cost-effectiveness of Arctic shipping.
"There's a value to all of us in cooperation," he said.
Safeguards falling into place, obstacles still exist
While significant work needs to be done to improve collaboration and communication in Arctic waters, some headway has been made. In his speech, Treadwell noted that the U.S. reached a search and rescue agreement with the Arctic Council in 2011, and this year, hopes to solidify an agreement on marine oil spill prevention and response. Efforts are underway to inventory transport infrastructure across the Arctic to address gaps.
The United States senators have yet to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, which has been adopted by four other Arctic coastal states. Concern over some of the terms, and some identified potential conflicts, are sticking points, Treadwell reported.
But in May, Canada takes the helm of the Arctic Council, with the theme of "Development for the People of the North." Two years later, the United States becomes the chair of that body. Treadwell said it is his hope that by the end of that time, real policy could be created to lead Arctic shipping in the future.
"It's invigorating to think what we could achieve in four years towards establishing a lasting regime of Arctic Shipping," Treadwell said in his Norway presentation. "It could serve as an example world-wide of what international cooperation can look like when we prioritize the health and safety of our people and our environment."
Native communities need consideration
Treadwell told the Norway conference participants that Alaska Native communities, and their traditional subsistence hunting must be considered by Arctic shippers. While oil and gas developers in Alaska have been required to coordinate with Native subsistence whalers and sealers, itinerant vessels have not.
"I cannot understate the importance of subsistence whaling, sealing and walrus hunting to the people of coastal Alaska," Treadwell told the conference.
Earlier this week, Treadwell said that whalers and small boat operators may need to consider beacon locators in the future as well, however, so that large vessels know where they are.
Economic prosperity through Arctic shipping
While one of Treadwell's main concerns was getting some agreement in place for Arctic shipping, the lieutenant governor was also enthusiastic about the opportunities appearing with the increased Arctic shipping activity.
For example, Arctic communities suffering the economic constraints of high fuel prices might benefit from the products being shipped right by their front door.
"We're asking if there is any way to take advantage of all that growing trade to reduce energy costs for Alaskans," Treadwell said.
In addition, products produced in Alaska may find new buyers on a global market because of shifting shipping opportunities. Can materials from the Red Dog Mine, for example, find new markets? What about Alaska salmon. Could they make a splash on the Alaska market with a reduced shipping cost?
"How does this new ocean make Alaska resources more competitive," Treadwell asked.
In his presentation in Norway, Treadwell noted that Alaska was focusing on how it could work with increased vessel traffic, capitalize on backhauls and bring its own goods to market in Asia, Canada, Russia and Europe.
"By cooperative efforts, we could increase the competitive value of each nation's unique assets," Treadwell said. "The Arctic truly could feed and fuel the world."
A port and infrastructure is needed in the Arctic before any of those opportunities can be realized, however, and Treadwell said the state was moving forward researching those needs. Many questions still exist, however, about what sort of facility the Arctic will need. For example, if Shell or another company finds oil in the Arctic, the needs will change dramatically for both an Arctic port as well as for other areas, such as Unalaska or Adak, where equipment storage, for example, might be needed.
Other needs, such as tugs and ice breakers capable of operating in the Arctic, must be considered as well, Treadwell said.
"If you know you've got permanent business, that changes things," said Treadwell.
Overall, getting the nation's attention about its role in the ever-expanding resource that is the Arctic presents a challenge in itself, but expanding industry and world-wide attention are helping that cause, Alaska's second-in-command said. Decades ago, few would have imagined Alaska's role as a major airline shipping hub. Similarly, the Arctic shipping route and development are becoming a reality.
"America is waking up to the fact that it is an Arctic nation, but we need to keep everyone thinking about it," he said.